Friday, December 18, 2009

The Rehearsal and the Winter Season at the Blackfriars

My wife and I recently attended one of the few performances of George Villiers The Rehearsal at the American Shakespeare Center's Blackfriars Playhouse. The play was uproariously funny, if a bit disjointed and somewhat unknown (this is probably the first time it's been performed in the modern era). Essentially, it is a farce, poking fun at the works of Restoration dramatists such as those of John Dryden. Chris Seiler stars as Bayes, an arrogant ass of a playwright who happens upon a city gentleman (Johnson) and a country gentleman (Smith), played by Allison Glenzer and Luke Eddy (complete with affected country Southern twang) respectively. Bayes has his theatre company (the rest of the ASC Resident troupe, somewhat playing themselves) put on a rehearsal for Smith and Johnson. Seiler does a tremendous job as the leading man in this play. John Harrell & Chris Johnston are also hilarious as monarchs. The pre-show and interlude musical performances were fantastic, with Seiler again standing out, particularly in a cover of The Who's "The Seeker."
James Keegan as Scrooge in A Christmas Carol; Photo by Mike Bailey.

A couple of weeks later, we returned for performances of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol and Joe Mantello's play version of David Sedaris's The Santaland Diaries. A Christmas Carol features the wonderful James Keegan in the role of Ebeneezer Scrooge, backed by the ASC on Tour troupe. Stand outs were Rick Blunt as the narrator, Josh Carpenter as Bob Cratchit, James Patrick Nelson as Jacob Marley, and Ginna Hoben as Christmas Past and Tiny Tim, Dennis Henry in various roles, and David Zimmerman as the Plump Sister. Keegan is amazing as the intimidating Scrooge, bullying his way through the crowd at times, casting out insults, and glaring at us with menacing scowls. Blunt, ever the comedian, delivers the narration with great effect, especially when Scrooge's bed breaks under Keegan's weight late in the play. Both actors were able to deftly and hilariously ad lib their way through. The only drawback to this play was a dull, lifeless crowd full of annoyed children who wanted to make sure others were as unhappy to be there as they were. We were also seated toward the back of the playhouse, and noticed every distraction. The musical interludes were essentially drowned out by the crowd, who only came to life during breaks. Needless to say, this was not a typical Blackfriars audience.

Later that day we saw The Santaland Diaries. John Harrell stars as Crumpet the Elf in this one man, decidedly adult show. We had our usual Lord's Seats for this show. Before the show, ASC resident actor Chris Johnston and ASC On Tour actors Aidan O'Reilly and Joseph Rende entertained the audience with some hilarious, if off-color, Christmas songs. Johnston always has a great sense of comedic timing and an overall sarcastic aura and he is one of my favorite ASC performers. Harrell then took the stage and donned the tights and uniform of Crumpet the Elf to the delight of the crowd. Harrell is the best comedic actor of the ASC veterans and he does not disappoint in this hilarious role. This was the funniest show I've seen at the ASC, and that's saying a lot. Unfortunately, this is Harrell's last turn as Crumpet as he feels he has "aged out" of the role. Next year he will take on the role of Scrooge and Rick Blunt will face the wrath of the Macy's shoppers.
John Harrell as Crumpet inThe Sataland Diaries; photo by Tommy Thompson.

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